Farrar, Straus and Giroux
By the winter of 1972, 14-year-old Donald Antrim was a nascent bibliophile, working through collections of H.G. Wells and J.R.R. Tolkien, and developing an aesthete's passion for books as objects. And so when his father, an English professor whose work took the Antrims to Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia, suggested that for Christmas the family of four exchange books and books alone, Donald was only briefly bothered by the austerity of the proposal.
Two things went wrong that Christmas, as recounted in Antrim's new memoir, The Afterlife: Donald did get a boxed set of the complete Conan Doyle but not the hardcover version he had asked for; and on Christmas Eve his parents, as usual, fought, and his mother, Louanne, also as usual, got profoundly blitzed, pointed out once again Donald's various and pernicious shortcomings, slurring through his bedroom door, and as a coup de grace, took a tumble resulting in a living room sprayed with ornamental glass and a matriarch moaning beneath the toppled tree.
Had George and Martha, the vitriolic sophisticates from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, been able to have kids, their household might have resembled the Antrims'. It's not fair to say, however, that Antrim's childhood was joyless, or that his larger-than-life mother was without redeeming qualities, or that The Afterlife is a typical memoir of bum-luck tales and "survival." If you prefer, call it a short collection of personal essays concerning memory, anger, shame, beauty, and the vexing allure of high-end mattresses.
The book centers, to the extent that it is centered, on Donald's mother. She taught fashion design and concocted Byzantine, expertly cut and sewn garments—Antrim describes in great detail one of her elaborately designed and festooned kimonos—tailored to the special needs of the crazy. Until the early '80s, she was an alcoholic who became abusive whenever she drank to excess. This was a real drag since she drank to excess nightly. Sobriety didn't cure her of her combativeness and narcissism, however, or keep her from chain-smoking. She died of lung cancer in 2000. But things rarely being simple, she could also be tender and understanding. The Afterlife contains a Proustian scene of Louanne massaging an asthmatic Donald to sleep, using techniques the son would later repeat at his mother's deathbed.
Antrim is acclaimed for three novels full of darkly comic absurdo-realism. His '93 debut, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, opens with a small, coastal town's ex-mayor being drawn and quartered with Japanese cars, including a slow-starting Celica. In The Afterlife, appropriately considering the genre, Antrim is more restrained and direct, but his prose is rarely prosaic, and he has a knack for harmonizing short, dry sentences with pretty, Jamesian whoppers. Remembering an eccentric uncle he writes: "I was thirteen when I started riding the bus across the Everglades to visit him. I used to sit by the window and watch for alligators in the black canals beside the highway, as, in the far distance, fires lit by heat lightning burned off the dry grass and the stunted pines that grew in clusters like innumerable tiny islands rising from the shallow waters south of Naples." Frankly, I tend to gloss over natural descriptions like the ones above, but the rhythm really is quite lovely.
Linearity being the leading bugaboo of postmodern stylists such as Antrim, The Afterlife explains the author's history in roundabout fashion, and is as fearless around narrative gaps as it is around narrative canyons. It's best when laying out digressive yarns from Antrim's adulthood. Antrim opens with a tale of Oedipal neurosis and "compulsive consumerism" previously published, like other sections of The Afterlife, by The New Yorker. Shortly after his mother's death, Antrim decides to buy a new mattress, a typically humdrum task that turns into an obsessive quest in which mattresses are researched, tested, tested again, purchased and returned, agonized over, further researched, tossed and turned upon. Among the ultimately unsatisfactory models is a $7,000 mattress that a writer living in expensive New York and supported by "literary level sales" can't afford.
Then again, money really isn't the issue here any more than mattresses are: The whole pursuit is tied up with Antrim's anger and shame regarding his mother and his (related) inability to maintain romantic relationships. Antrim does in fact overwork the mom/mattress metaphor, but that's fine since the essay is about being overwrought. Also it's very funny and has, paradoxically I suppose, convinced me that I might finally get the decent night's sleep I deserve on a Duxiana 7007 with the Pascal top-pad.
Looking further back, Antrim crafts some vivid, moving scenes, but he founders when treating his father, who remains more shadowy than perhaps his "Southern taciturnity" justifies. Truly, there are a few recollections here that fail to stand up even to the modifier "hazy." The fallibility of memory is of course a much greater burden to the memoirist than to the novelist, and perhaps no solution is adequate. Antrim's answer is to frequently and literally question his memory—"But wait. Were the rings in my pocket, or were they sitting on a pillow, a velvet pillow that I carried like a serving tray?" And while it's true that distant, elusive memories are still tops for psychological fertility, it's also true that storytellers who can't make up their minds are a pain in the ass.
Most likely, you'll forgive Antrim these minor transgressions. In The Afterlife he emerges a most likable guy, all the more so because he doesn't seem too interested in being likable. Along with grievances rendered without self-pity, Antrim fills his book with revelations—not confessions; somehow he makes the distinction felt—of his own pettiness, meanness, and hysteria, this last quality described without the burlesque, I'm-so-crazy exclamation points employed by less talented nutcases. Working in a genre that his earlier, more experimental work would seem to shun, he has come up with a refined, reflective memoir that one can read without embarrassment in public. His mother—ever a practitioner of the outrageous and inexplicable display—would not have been proud.